The Curious Case of the Ebola Troll

The satire Ebola tweet that landed Twitter user @colin_dime in hot water.
The satire Ebola tweet that landed Twitter user @colin_dime in hot water.

Is a silly Photoshop prank the equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater?

The Frisco Police Department seemed to think so when officers took a high school jokester into custody in early October.

The student’s crime? Trolling his fellow Friscoans for their gullibility, playing on their willingness to believe hyperbolic news reports generated by a 24-hour news cycle ravenous for speculation about Ebola’s recent arrival in nearby Dallas.

Punctuating an Oct. 1 tweet with just the right amount of bawling emoji, the student—whose name has not been released—posted a pretty good imitation of a Fox News screenshot broadcasting the sort of Ebola story that readers might fear to find splashed across the Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate’s website: “6 New Cases of Ebola Discovered Within Dallas Fort Worth Area, Specifically Frisco ISD.”

Even a cursory perusal of the student’s Twitter timeline would lead a thinking person to conclude that he was goofing, but that didn’t stop the image from spreading, and in what appears to have been a matter of hours the affluent exurb was all afroth.

Parents kept their kids home from school. The district issued a soothing email: “… there is currently no reason to believe that the situation [in Dallas] presents a health concern to Frisco ISD students or staff members.”

Police took the teenager into custody for making a “false alarm or report.” Law enforcement authorities tell me he was later transferred to the Collin County Juvenile Detention Center, and that as of mid-October the case was “still under investigation.”

Juvenile incarceration. Over a fake news story attributed to an “AP Medical Scriber.”

Give the kid credit—imitating the local Fox affiliate was a brilliant move. Average Joes and Janes will find the “source” just reputable enough to not immediately dismiss the “news” as a hoax, and “Obola”-fearing Fox loyalists will treat it as the word of God Hisownself.

In the tweet accompanying the photo, the student perfectly captured the fear and confusion that’s run beneath the surface of news reports since the Ebola diagnosis of a Liberian man in Dallas was announced Sept. 30.

“… [O]ut of everywhere in the USA [Ebola] is at my EXACT HIGH SCHOOL.” This followed an earlier panic-belying chastisement that “Y’all know its [sic] not an airborne disease? You’d have to share body fluids to get it.”

That nugget—that Ebola is actually pretty difficult to contract and spread—has been notably missing from a great deal of the mainstream coverage so far, despite the fact that it’s arguably the most important information for reporters to relay to a jumpy public clearly ready to believe, and overreact to, just about anything.

The Dallas Morning News showed how CareFlite crews disinfect their helicopters. Television news broadcast a seemingly perpetual reel of hazmat-suited cleaners filing in and out of the Dallas apartment where patient Thomas Eric Duncan—who succumbed to the disease Oct. 8—stayed before his hospital admission. A WFAA-TV phone interview with Duncan’s wife used a spooky silhouette as a stand-in for the interviewee.

But this Frisco kid is thrown in the clink for pulling off a pretty solid Photoshop job? Even as the perpetrators of far more insidious Ebola-related fictions remain free to engage in racist right-wing agitation over what they claim is a very real possibility of the disease infiltrating the Texas-Mexico border?

Two days after the Frisco teen was taken into custody, Fox News Latino printed the headline “Border Patrol on alert after 71 people from hard-hit Ebola countries illegally enter U.S. this year,” building on Rand Paul-fueled fears of a “whole ship full” of American soldiers returning from Africa teeming with the virus. A week after the Frisco Fox hoax, Breitbart Texas didn’t hesitate to imply that the National Institute of Health’s infectious disease czar, Dr. Anthony Fauci, was either stupid or a liar when he called the Ebola-infiltration claims of Paul and others “far-fetched.”

These are real lies being spread by people with far more influence than a suburban Texas high schooler. This is real fearmongering, and it’s given morbidly gleeful credibility by people who get paid by the byline.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should imprison journalists, hucksters or hypesters. Freedom of speech and all that. But no more should the police be jailing a kid who used a computer to create a mirror that reflects our terrified faces right back at us.

Apparently it’s only OK to scare the shit out of people if that’s your main line of business.

Andrea Grimes, a native Texan and avid twitterer, is the digital editor at the Observer.

You May Also Like:

Published at 2:54 pm CST